Tuesday, February 9, 2016
In 1984, my parents gave me the graduation present I wanted: money for Europe. On some (by today's terms) ridiculously small sum I planned to see all of it. England to France to Italy, at least. First stop, Angleterre, as it ever was on the grand tour. I went with a girlfriend from Georgetown who happened to hail from a particular strain of casual East Coast snobbery that, without realizing, I was pretty much done with prior to Heathrow.
So, jet-lagged, through London to Reading. There was perhaps a buggy that picked us up and took us to Mortimer, where we lodged with the Earl's son and his ever-so-plucky-let's-grab-gooseberries-from-the-garden wife Rachel. (I'm not naming a real name in this account except for Rachel's.) Over two weeks, we went to Ascot and Henley and (my doing) Wimbledon. So veddy veddy much casual snobbery. We went to lunch at a country estate and were served cold fish in a stark dining room, then walked the grounds. Literally, it was announced: Now we will walk the grounds. (Thank God there was wine at lunch.) Afterwards, on the ride home, all Rachel could talk about was "that awful man," and all I could think was the obvious: "Then why did you have two American kids on the biggest vacation of their lives give up an afternoon for him?"
At Ascot, this fellow in his seventies tried to make courteous small talk with me and I smilingly kept saying that I was so sorry but I just couldn't quite catch his meaning. And he kept smilingly insisting that I could. He would say it again and I would smile and shake my head. He would say it again, perhaps louder this time, and I would shrug my shoulders smile and shake my head. I had not taken Northern English in college.
In related news, because Wimbledon was on Rachel was compelled to mention Virginia Wade's "awful accent." Virginia Wade, whose autograph I had from ballboy days, whom I found so beautiful in an English way. To publicly say that you find an accent repellent... Aren't we taught that the British have superhuman manners, whatever they may be thinking? Well Rachel was a true son of an Earl's fishwife in Shetland sweaters -- never going to deign to dress up to be liked, never going to change the shoddy carpeting or fix the heating in the unimpressive manor house so that her guests might be comfortable, always going to think herself practical and chipper in an Emma Thompson sort of way. And always going to be calling people "awful."
I loathed her.
Her husband, on the other hand, just wanted to play tennis (which I accommodated, every night, losing before dinner, it was bright until ten) and laugh. I said I'd only say one name but what the hell his name was Hugo. Which is a very nice name.
After dinner I was bored; I'm not sure why everyone let me alone at 9pm to drink Nescafe and watch Wimbledon on TV; I'm not sure where everyone went. I did manage to find the Scotch to add to my coffee, and watched tennis until the late-arriving dark. Every morning I'd have an infuriating bath (in so many ways, England was still in the sixties) and then head to the train station with A, who had a real agenda for us that involved palaces and architecture and stuff. Stuff I'd like now, but at the time all I wanted to do was go to London. Even London was no great shakes; there was the Hard Rock Cafe and Sloane Square and Kings Road and Oxford Street fluorescent clothes and that was pretty much it.
We went to A's perfectly beautiful Farmington friend's place in Knightsbridge for cocktails, her bluff Capitalist father proclaiming loudly how impossible the English were. (The friend was beautiful and so was the apartment, so I won't fix the sentence.) Me, a sudden convert to bluff Capitalists vs. Rachel, the most negative woman I'd met since my college roommate's mother, who once walked through Dumbarton Oaks saying over and over again, "Can you even think how much work this was?" Yeah, that's the way to approach a glorious bit of floral imagination. Think about how much trouble it'd be to replicate behind your Baltimore Colonial.
Forgive me: I had a beautiful, sunny mother who would have laughed off bad fish luncheons and side-eyed pretension reflexively, and delighted in Dumbarton Oaks. (If I hadn't been pushing folks over the fence and then tumbling down the hill after Peter...)
Anyway, I enjoyed that cocktail party, drank too much with all the rest of them and then we went to one of those members only "clubs" that the English think are cool. Okay, Annabel's! It was fascinatingly awful, small seats around minuscule tables and Middle Eastern men and women with pearls down their backs. I must have been wearing my khaki Brooks Brothers suit, which got a real workout in England, or they wouldn't have let me in. God I hope someone else paid for the drinks.
Henley was the last straw. The way it works is that you hang out in a Thames-side tent that is home to a school. We, for some reason that escapes me, were in the Princeton tent. A's beautiful blonde friend from Knightsbridge, probably. We'll call her Annabel, though I ended up respecting her whole Daisy Miller thing more than A's sad pretension. It was fun to root for the sculls, and there was plenty of Pimm's. To this day I like Pimm's, despite its association with those two weeks. Was it only two weeks? But in the midst of the cheering and the spirits, A and I got into an argument about... I guess my demeanor. "You've been unhappy since we got to England." "I haven't; I just didn't feel that well at first." My God what an English reply! And a cowardly one, but no matter: she was insistent. Still I refused to bite. "Come on, the Princeton Eight..."
I knew even then that I had no space between politeness and fury.
She brought up Blenheim and Bath, which were fairly destroyed by her knowingness (Jesus, even about cheese), but not Oxford. Because I had loved Oxford, I'd fallen in love with Oxford at sight, despite the fact that her mother was named after one of the colleges. The ludicrousness. Here is the thing: Barrs and Sampsons and Crocketts and Campbells and Shepherds might give you three names, but NONE of them will be the name of a famous Oxford college. Only a Cleveland crank manufacturer would be so gauche. And that was A's family in Sneden's Landing.
I'm not the hardest nut to crack so eventually I allowed her contention. I lost my cool, said the tree to the woodpecker, and it may have gone something like this: "Yes, you are correct. It has been a miserable trip. I don't care for the S's, particularly that awful awful awful Rachel, and I don't care for you over here."
We divorced at that moment, didn't speak to each other on the train back to Mortimer, nor for the next couple of days, and I ended up in London and then on the boat to France tout seul.
Posted by RSB at 1:51 PM